What is it to be a hawk?

Anita Roy | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on February 20, 2015

Red_Shouldered_Hawk_portrait   -  Wikipedia

H is for Hawk<br>Helen Macdonald<br>Jonathan Cape<br>Memoir<br>₹1,300<br>

The ways the wild enables and enriches our emotional, linguistic and cognitive mindscape

H is for Hawk — a Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and Costa Award-winning book — is a narrative braid made up of three interwoven strands. It is simultaneously a memoir of one woman’s struggle with grief after the death of her father; a riveting account of falconry through her acquiring and training a young, female goshawk; and a book about the tortured life of TH White, author of The Once and Future King, the children’s classic based on the Arthurian legend.

As a child, Helen Macdonald was obsessed with birds of prey. The picture she paints is of a bookish girl, passionate and introverted, as much in love with the technical language of hawking, with its own arcane poetry, as with the birds themselves. She carried this love unabated into adulthood, and when in 2007, her father — the press photographer Alisdair Macdonald — died suddenly of a heart attack, her immediate response was to order a goshawk.

Hawks (as I now know) cannot be domesticated. They are captured in the wild and trained: each hawk down the generations must be trained from scratch and, left to its own devices, reverts to its natural, feral state. Reading a book on the subject, the young schoolmaster TH White was captivated: “The word ‘feral’ has a kind of magical potency,” he explained in one of his letters, “allied to two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free’.” He decides to train a goshawk, embarking on the task armed only with a few ancient and outdated books on the subject. The subsequent battle of wills between man and bird is documented in his book, named after his bird, Gos. From the passages excerpted by Macdonald, it is a gruelling read, in which White subdues this wild creature — or attempts to — with the same kind of sadistic cruelty that he himself had experienced as a boy in an English public school.

In his introduction to a contemporary edition, nature writer and activist Stephen Bodio calls it “a book about excruciatingly bad falconry [and] the best book about falconry, its feel, its emotions, and its flavour ever written.” White himself agreed — at least with the former assessment: “It is all rubbish. It is just what a very young, romantic, inefficient austringer might write. The twelve real living falconers will hate it and despise it in their guts.”

As to the latter, Bodio may now have to concur that the ‘best book about falconry’ is Macdonald’s own. Not only is she a brilliant nature writer, Macdonald’s command of language is ferociously exacting. Seeing Mabel, her goshawk, for the first time, she struggles to capture the feeling of shock and awe: “[the hawk seemed like] a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.”

She chronicles her own spiral into depression with the same raw honesty she brings to her descriptions of the emotionally gruelling process of taming her hawk. As Helen accustoms Mabel to human society, she herself becomes more hawk-like, shunning her own species like a hawk bating from its perch, gripped by terror and frustration.

The death of her father renders Macdonald almost literally deranged — as though her internal organs are reordered, wrenched from their normal positions. People in the street feel like alien entities. She begins to see like a hawk — literally, rather than metaphorically. It’s not that she hones in on distant objects, but that she scans her surroundings like a wild thing, startled by sudden noises, alarmed by these lumbering two-legged creatures, unable to understand concepts like ‘pushchair’, ‘baby’ or ‘car’.

The boy Wart in White’s The Once and Future King, struggles with a similar conundrum, when under the wizard Merlin, he is transformed into other creatures — first fish, then hawk, ant, goose, badger. As an ant, Wart discovers a ‘helpless feeling’ that “there were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for the opposites. He felt like a dumb man trying to shout ‘Fire!’”

It’s a similar conundrum to that posed in philosopher Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 paper ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ How does it feel to be an animal? What is it like inside a bird’s head? How do human’s think at all? What is this thing called ‘consciousness’? I sort of like the idea that this is known, in cognitive science and philosophical circles as, simply, ‘the Hard Problem’. So much easier to think of animals as being, basically, ‘a bit like us’. Which leads me to wonder what is the opposite of ‘anthropomorphism’? Is it even possible?

Reading Macdonald’s descriptions of Mabel, trying to understand her quintessential ‘hawkishness’, I was reminded of Mark Haddon’s explanation of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s phrase, ‘Les animaux sont bons à penser’. Haddon argues that what the anthropologist meant was not ‘Animals are good to think with’ but ‘Animals are good to think’: “Good to think with. Good to think. It’s the difference between a spanner and a hand.”

In titling her book like a child’s primer, Macdonald’s meaning is clear — H is for Hawk, the way A is for Apple: it’s as simple, as fundamental as that. A world without hawks is like language without a letter — a terrible impoverishment, that leaves us unable to express important things: running around our burning anthills, unable to raise the alarm. Animals and birds — or, perhaps more accurately, ‘the wild’ in general — enables and enriches our emotional, linguistic and cognitive mindscape, and books like Macdonald’s are a potent reminder in our increasingly animal-empty world that without the non-human, we become less than human ourselves.

Published on February 20, 2015
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